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Radical Editorial Empathy
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In the late 1990s, while simultaneously editing the stories of prizewinning fiction writers for the Paris Review and grading personal essays by first-generation college students attending Brooklyn College, I noticed that the editorial process was more or less the same for both. Reading manuscripts with rigor but without judgment helped all sorts of writers equally. Whenever I was able to convince the writer I'd tried to understand their work on its own terms, my attempts at editing were better received and more effective, whether the writers were masters or novices.
Instead of rejecting and correcting, instead of telling writers what to fix and how, I tried to notice their untied threads and name them. I asked writers to go on and finish what they'd left undone, to cinch their seams with knots and to trim away the tacking.
Radical Editorial Empathy is a way of reading that deploys compassion, self-restraint and open-mindedness to help writers take their work to its highest level. It ameliorates the often-fraught experience of manuscript critique, affirms the idiosyncrasies of the writer's vision and promotes originality in form, style and content.
For the reader or editor, this approach means striving to put their own literary aesthetic second when considering a work-in-progress. It commands the reader to ask first what the author might hope to achieve. What as-yet-unrealized narrative wonder lies latent in this possibly messy draft? Perhaps it is the opposite of the literary critical theory of the death of the author. More a process or a stance than an act, Radical Editorial Empathy begins with the reader's attempt to defer their culturally dictated expectations and channel the vision of the author.
Radical Editorial Empathy does not devalue the reader's literary knowledge or aesthetic. It simply asks the reader to delay levying judgement till the work-in-progress has been fully apprehended. At that point, the reader steps forward with questions, suggestions and editorial ideas that arise. The goals are to avoid forcing writers' works into familiar shapes or conformity with literary norms, to encourage authenticity and innovation, to help writers fully realize their vision and to bring texts to their best possible iteration.
I write and teach writing because I believe that art can change the world. Back in the 80s, I had a hot pink plastic pin, studded with rhinestones that read ART SAVES LIVES. I've thought of it wistfully many times this past year. The slogan remains as true as it is controversial. Art doesn't feed starving children or provide them with clean drinking water. It doesn't save lives in the direct way that combination therapy does or a vaccine against a deadly virus. But I can attest to art's lifesaving power, because it has surely saved mine.
Literature has a vaunted place in the arts. Our faculty of language and unstoppable proclivity toward storytelling makes us human. Words are how we communicate, the very matrix of our society. Every work of literature has the potential to make someone see the world anew, through the eyes of another person. Every narrative is an opportunity for empathy.
As so often, it turns out there's a cycle here: the creation of literature is fostered by the same sort of empathy that the fully realized work of literature impels in its readers.
Radical Editorial Empathy leads to kinder and more effective manuscript critique. It might even make our world a better place.
I urge you to practice it and propagate it.
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